Joe Winters is new to the boys soccer rivalry between Cascade Christian and St. Mary’s, but after seeing his Challengers soundly defeated in the teams’ first meeting this season, the first-year coach knew some major strategic adjustments were in order.

And while those adjustments were successful in keeping the rematch a lot closer, they still weren’t enough to change the outcome: a 1-0 victory for St. Mary’s over Cascade Christian in a highly physical contest Saturday at U.S. Cellular Community Park.

Luka Cvijanovic put in a header on a well-placed cross from Preston Jernigan late in the first half to account for the only goal, after Andrew Michels was fouled to set up a free kick.

“Cascade, whenever we play them, it’s always a physical game,” Jernigan said. “And that’s just what makes this a great sport. It’s always fun playing them, especially when they come out the way they did.”

Relying on its superior ball skills, St. Mary’s controlled most of the possession and hit Cascade Christian with a barrage of shots, and yet the Challengers managed to stay within striking distance by sticking with a game plan that focused on savvy defense and opportunistic offense.

“If we play our game, we have an opportunity to put five goals in,” St. Mary’s coach Eisa Tia Tutu said. “But for some reason, the intensity of it kind of took us off.”

“We’re really working hard and we try to keep one-touching the ball and sometimes that’s not easy,” he added. “We created opportunity after opportunity after opportunity and we just couldn’t finish it.”

The Crusaders’ lack of finishing was due in large part to tenacious defensive efforts by the backline of Caleb Sciapiti, Jeffrey Fairbanks and Gabe Vidlak, in addition to keeper Nick Erno, who came up with a pair of spectacular diving saves in the second half.

“I’ve been working for a long time on saves,” said Erno, a senior. “I haven’t had that many shots on me in a long time and I was just ready for them,”

Erno nearly saved the goal by Cvijanovic, but the tall, lanky defender used his height and experience in front of the net to gain superior position and receive the ball from Jernigan, who expertly chipped it to his favorite target.

“He’s a big dude,” Jernigan said. “I always look for Luka, just because of his size, first. So I always try to put some spin on (the ball), right on his head, and it just happened to work out today.”

Said Cvijanovic: “He chipped it and I had a guy on me and I was running. The opponent kind of got stopped by his own player and I was able to run on and get some spin on it. I felt like it was a good shot from the position I did it from and it went in.”

“It’s always easier to run forward than it is to run backwards and the defense has to react to where I’m going,” he added. “It’s the same way when I play defense. So it’s always simply, you put a little move and you run forward and it’s very hard for people to catch up to you.”

Missing two starters who were taking a test Saturday morning, St. Mary’s called up a pair of junior varsity players to fill in and relied more heavily on its defensive stalwarts, Cvijanovic, Michels, Parker Lam and Marcel Janes, in addition to strong play at midfield by Milan Bobek.

St. Mary’s, which has let in just four goals in nine matches, put together its sixth shutout of the season.

“Our defense held up, like it typically does, and this year especially,” Cvijanovic said. “I’m proud of all our guys all around.”

Keeping their unbeaten District 5 record intact, the Crusaders (8-1, 8-0) distanced themselves from the second-place Challengers (7-3, 6-3) in the league standings while running their winning streak eight.

Still, the outcome felt like a moral victory for Cascade Christian, which lost 3-0 to St. Mary’s in its second game of the season. The Challengers have been working on a new style of play under Winters, focusing on patience and making changes in positioning.

“They scored their goal on a restart, so if there was a victory for us, it was a victory that we were still able to contain them,” Winters said. “They got the majority of the possession and we did what we needed to do to keep the game close. But still, good clubs are going to find a way to put the ball in the net and that’s what they did.”

“So this was a game that we would’ve been fortunate to win, we would’ve been fortunate even to get a tie, but hey, a 1-0 loss, the kids have got to be proud of their effort,” he added. “I know they’re disappointed they didn’t at least tie or win the game, but hey, it’s an improvement from how we played last time.”

Cascade Christian senior forward Kyle Reece, who sat out the teams’ first meeting this season, echoed his coach’s sentiments.

“I was impressed because ... just being able to watch how we played (St. Mary’s) in the last game, and how far we’ve come as a team — knowing when to risk going for the ball, when to stay back so your teammates can come back and then having the ability to have help and be able to press and hopefully get the counterattack — I think we did a lot better with that today,” he said.

“I was born and raised here and I’ve known ever since I was born that (St. Mary’s is) the team to beat,” he added. “We really were shooting for this game to try and get an upset and show them what we can do. I think we still shocked them a little bit. We just couldn’t quite put the pieces together on offense, but we were right there.”

— Reach sports reporter Mike Oxendine at 541-776-4499 or moxendine@mailtribune.com